Liberatore revs engine in Hot Rods debut

Rays No. 5 prospect tosses five scoreless innings in first start

Matthew Liberatore has 41 strikeouts over 37 2/3 innings in 10 Minor League starts. (Steve Roberts/Bowling Green Hot Rods)

By Sam Dykstra / | May 15, 2019 6:48 PM

Matthew Liberatore has tossed a shutout in a World Cup gold medal-winning game against Korea. He's pitched in pre-Draft showcases that helped determine his future. He was a first-round pick worthy of a $3,497,500 signing bonus. 

But there's still a little something different about moving out of extended spring training and making a full-season debut with a Class A club.

"Walking out before stretches, it kinda hit me -- I'm playing for a real team now," Liberatore said. "This is a game that matters. And then I just got right back to doing what I've always done."

When the rubber hit the road, the 19-year-old showed the Midwest League why he's the No. 51 overall prospect in the game.

Making his Class A debut Tuesday, Liberatore struck out four and scattered four hits and a walk over five innings in Bowling Green's 17-0 rout of South Bend at Bowling Green Ballpark.

Gameday box score

"I felt pretty comfortable and dialed in right from the first pitch," the Rays' No. 5 prospect said. "The ball was coming out of my hand well all day. Whether it was stretch, playing catch, bullpen or the game, I felt the same way. It's just the same thing I've always done, reading hitters' swings, trusting my intuition, trusting my stuff. I wanted to show them that I'm not afraid of anything out there."

Liberatore flashed his potential right away by striking out D.J. Artis on five pitches -- all strikes -- for his first official batter faced this season. He allowed two singles in the opening inning but escaped unscathed when Jonathan Sierra was caught trying to take an extra base on his knock for the final out. Liberatore didn't allow more than one baserunner in an inning the rest of the way, working around a leadoff double in the second and a leadoff single in the third. He stranded Rafael Narea at third in the fifth, following a walk and his errant pickoff attempt by getting Artis to ground out to second.

Video: Hot Rods' Liberatore notches first K

The left-hander threw 44 of 62 pitches for strikes, including six swings-and-misses. He sat mostly in the mid-90s with his fastball but admitted he relied more heavily on his other offerings, all of which are also considered above-average.

"I could see them swinging and missing a few times on my off-speed stuff or even just taking it and not even swinging when I dropped those in for strikes, so I used my curveball and slider a lot today," Liberatore said. "My fastball I used later in the counts or sometimes as a high putaway pitch, if I needed it. But for the most part, they didn't seem to want to touch my off-speed, so I stuck with that."

There are probably more than a few hitters in Florida glad that they don't have to face Liberatore's arsenal any longer. Last year's 16th overall Draft pick opened in extended spring training and last pitched a week ago, when he was informed that would be his last start before heading north to join a first full-season affiliate. With four above-average to plus pitches -- including his changeup -- and impressive control, Liberatore has the stuff to dominate Class A but stayed in Florida to build to a full summer's workload after throwing 93 frames between high school and the pros a year ago.

Because of his deep reportoire and overall ceiling, the Rays have taken a relatively hands-off approach with Liberatore, just fine-tuning things before unleashing him on the Midwest League.

"I wouldn't necessarily say I'm even a different pitcher than I was in high school," he said. "I still view the game the same way. I'm still trying to do the same things. I'm just a lot more consistent and efficient with my pitch counts. I know that's because, one, I have a defense I can trust to make plays behind me and, two, I've worked on refining my mechanics. I've worked on being repetitive in everything I do out there. Making sure the delivery, the arm action, all of that's the same so no hitter can tell the difference about what's coming out of my hand." 

2019 MiLB include

While Liberatore was busy laying the foundation for what could be a special summer, his Hot Rods teammates were putting together a special matinee of their own. The victory margin was the biggest in franchise history. Everyone in the lineup collected multiple hits, leading to a season-high 21 knocks. Catcher Chris Betts went 2-for-6 and hit a grand slam in an eight-run eighth, while top Rays prospect Wander Franco went 2-for-3 a double, two walks, two RBIs and two runs scored from the third spot in the order, the lowest he's batted all season.

The Hot Rods improved to 22-17 and sit one game behind Great Lakes in the Eastern Division. Adding Liberatore to a club that already boasted Franco and fellow first-rounders Shane Baz and Shane McClanahan should only make that first-half race more fascinating.

"I played with a decent amount of these guys in the [Gulf Coast League] and [Rookie Advanced] Princeton last year, so I'm already close with a lot of them," Liberatore said. "They're all really good players and I think we've got a really strong group here. I was super-excited to get here with these guys, and I'm looking forward to what we can do together now."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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